During the early hours of September 13th 1940 a Heinkel HE111P (2670) was caught by a mobile barrage balloon cable while flying at low altitude above Belle Vue Park. The ARP recorded that at 0400: “An enemy plane has crashed on No.31 Stow Park Avenue. One parachutist baled out and picked up in Queens Street and taken to Royal Gwent Hospital. No particulars of any other occupants.” The aircraft was the first confirmed loss in Britain of an aircraft to a barrage balloon during the Second World War

The plane actually crashed into No.32 Stow Park Avenue killing two children, Malcolm and Myrtle Phillips. Mr and Mrs Phillips escaped. The pilot Oberleutnant Harry Wappler was the only survivor of the aircrew. .

Barrage balloons were an integral part of Britain’s defences during the Second World War and by September 1941 2,748 were in use. By forcing German planes to fly above 5000 feet, barrage balloons reduced the accuracy of the German bombing and also made the aircraft more vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. In April 1941 women were first used to fly the balloons, a round-the-clock operation. After much discussion, it was found that fourteen women, rather than twenty as initially thought, could replace a ten man team.

Authority to establish a Balloon Barrage at Newport was given by Balloon Command for the purpose of protecting the Docks, Marshalling Yards, Iron Works, Munitions Works, Aluminium Works and Main Road Bridge The scale of the defence was originally laid down as 24 Balloons but later this was increased to 32 Balloons and finally 40.

Shaun McGuire in his brilliant website Newport’s War Dead states “The Heinkel 111P-2 bomber, identification number 1G+DS,(8 K.G.27) of Kampfgeshwader 27 near Paris had set off at 22.30 hrs on a routine bombing mission of Ellesmere Port in Cheshire. Within hours they had completed their operation without observing the results of their bombing and were heading back south to base. They were at 6,500 feet and passing over the Tredegar Park and hit the barrage balloon cable of one of the mobile Fordson winches scattered at various sites across the park.”

The aircraft, once it had hit the cable was doomed, since at this stage in the war aircraft had no defence against the cable and it sliced into the wing and made the aircraft stall and swing around the cable wildly. The doomed aircraft began its final descent to earth. The crew of 966 Squadron included 528399 Sgt John Sanderson, the balloon crew knew they had scored a “hit” and raced across the park anticipating the arrival of a German aircraft on the green swathes of grass, however the plane by ill luck managed to stay aloft until it reached Newport. Realising that there was no hope the Pilot Oberleutnant Harry Wappler baled out. The three remaining crewmen were unable to bale out. The aircraft landed on Stow Park Avenue at the top of Stow Hill, at 3.15 a.m. hitting the rear ground floor of the house of Harold David Phillips and Marjorie Phillips family of No.32 Stow Park Avenue, filled with incendiary devices, it exploded on impact, causing a dense fire and acrid fumes. The son, Malcom Phillips aged 17 and daughter Myrtle aged 14, of the Phillips family had been made to sleep in the downstairs room for safety. Malcom ran upstairs to see if his parents were alright, and finding they were alive, he ran back downstairs and heroically tried to rescue his sister. Their only means of escape from the house was by the bedroom window, from which they lowered themselves by tying sheets together. When they reached the ground Mr Phillips smashed the library window, severely burning and cutting his arms in the frantic attempt to reach his children but was beaten back by the flames. Undeterred, he ran to the back of the house but was restrained from making another attempt by firemen.

The Phillips home was rebuilt. Wappler, the pilot and the only aircrew member to escape the inferno was captured immediately and taken to St Woolos Hospital with a broken arm. Wappler was arrested after landing in a tree (and breaking his right arm) in Queen’s Street. Laterthat same morning Mr and Mrs Phillips arrived at his bedside and forgave him for the death of their children.

There is a headstone for Malcolm and Myrtle in Jews’ Wood at St Woolos cemetery. But perhaps the most lasting memorial of all is the compassion and forgiveness of the parents, compared with which all else seems temporal and bound to fate. In this Haunted Holy Ground Mike Buckingham recalls “Les Thomas remembers being at home that day when the milkman told his father there had been a terrible crash in Stow Park Avenue. “We went there and they were bringing the bodies of the airmen out. I was shaken and upset by it all,” he said. “

Wappler’s thoughts are recorded in Chris Goss’s book ‘Luftwaffe Pilots’.

The three dead crew were Unteroffizier Fritz Berndt (navigator, 25), Oberfeldwebel Johannes Elster (wireless operator, 34) and Unteroffizier Herbert Okuneck (bomb aimer, 25). They were initially buried at St Woolos Cemetery, but were later disinterred and reburied at the German war Cemetery at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire.

After interrogation, Wappler was sent to the pilot was taken to the Royal Herbert Hospital, in Woolwich before being sent on to No. 13 PoW camp at the Shap Wells hotel located between Kendall and Penrith in Cumbria. In Woolwich he met Heinz he met Schnabel, a fighter pilot who was shot down in his ME109 on September 5, 1940. In 1941 the two pilots were transported to Shap Wells, where they noticed training planes flying above train tracks near the hotel. 

According to the Westmoreland Gazette “The pair began to plot a daring escape plan and, using art materials to forge fake passports, they hid in laundry baskets, managed to get out of the camp and stowed away on a train to Carlisle. Disguised as Dutch airmen, they commandeered a plane from Kingstown airfield. They reached East Anglia before running out of fuel and crash landing. Still disguised as Allies, the pair were rescued and taken to RAF Horsham, where they are rumoured to have enjoyed a meal at the officers’ table before they were identified as escapees, and returned to Shap Wells.” On their return to the Shap POW camp they both spent 28 days in solitary. Both airmen were then shipped to more secure confinement in Canada. Harry Wappler died in 1985 but his wife Ruth and daughter in law Khrista visited Newport and the site of the crash.